Evolution of Marketing: From Trade to Technology



14 min read

In this blog post we will be examining the history of marketing, the current state of marketing, and some possibilities for the future of marketing.

Marketing in it’s most modern form is still relatively new, but trade and barter has existed since the Stone Age. If we consider marketing as a sales tool, marketing is arguably the true oldest profession!

There are so many variations of marketing techniques that it is difficult to pin down exactly what sort of things to include, but we’ve done our best in including all of the relevant and interesting touchpoints in marketing history.

Let’s get all Bill and Ted on this, and delve deep back in time, with the history of marketing!

So… What is marketing?

What is Marketing?

Marketing is the process of communicating, delivering, exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large.

That’s what the dictionary defines it as anyway. Clear as mud for me, but what that breaks down into is:

Marketing is getting goods and/or services in front of potential clients/customers.

The means of doing that are a little bit more complex, naturally, but that’s the bread and butter of it all.

Marketing gets your offering in front of the right people.

This means that marketing is the process of optimising your reach, and your potential to be bought.

Brand awareness is a marketing tool (and if you’re not sure on what branding is, check out our post on the subject.) Influencer marketing is a growing marketing tool, that some people think is the future of online marketing- but the history of influencer marketing predates millennial notions of ‘influencers’ on Instagram and TikTok.

Product placement and celebrity endorsements have been going on for years!

The answer to the question ‘What is Marketing?’ is… Marketing is complex. It’s lots of different things, moving in tandem to create certain effects. And it’s varied. What marketing means to Amazon and what marketing means to the grocery store down the road and what marketing means to WetherSpoons pubs are all different things.

But marketing does happen, in every business, big or small- it’s a necessity across every industry, forever, for all of time.

This makes for a pretty rich history, wouldn’t you say?
photo of a pyramid

Why Does the History of Marketing Matter?

Those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it.

We can see what works, and what doesn’t, by learning from the mistakes of others. Although society and the way we buy, sell, and market things has changed significantly in the last 3000 years, humans on the whole, haven’t.

Although we are regarded as more complex creatures psychologically than we were in the olden days, the idea of supply and demand, need, social status and generally why people buy things hasn’t developed much past ancient Eygptian practices of trade and advertising.

And ancient Eygptians did advertise… but more on that later.

Those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it might be a little intense for what we’re discussing here, but the slightly amended adage of:

‘History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes’, is another reason to learn marketing history.

By picking up on trends and developments (and when, why and how marketing developed), we can possibly get a glimpse into the future of marketing as well.

When the Gutenberg press was invented, it changed the way marketing was done irreversibly and forever.

When the internet arrived, it did the same thing.

Time and time again, throughout history, it has been shown that early adopters of new technology have flourished.

Nurturing an audience on Facebook, even in 2006, would have been seen as a bit of a strange business practice. Now, 15 years on, if you don’t have a business page on Facebook it seems strange.

By learning from this little slice of history, we can perhaps position ourselves to be early adopters of new tech. Imagine if you were better at Facebook advertising than any of your competitors, and had been doing it for years… who wouldn’t want that edge?

Businesses can be built on that entire premise!

With a little bit of added knowledge and history on your side, you can ensure your business flourishes and catches the next big wave that everyone will eventually have to ride.

So yeah… know your history now and your future will thank you later!

Pre-modern marketing and the first marketeers

Let’s start with the very basics.

You’re in the ancient world, 4000 BCE.

You own a prototype of what will eventually (many, many years later) be considered a business. You trade animal pelt for obsidian.

To illustrate that this is what you do, you paint on a rock wall.

This lets any passerby know, in a crude way, that this ‘service’ exists, and that you fulfil it.

And that is marketing.

You are optimising your opportunity to reach the widest audience possible. And that was happening, as early as 4000 BCE!

It’s absolutely crazy to think that even in such a primitive era of human history, marketing was alive and well. Marketing predates the invention of what we’d recognise today as writing… Cuniform would be developed in ancient Mesopotamia around 400ish years later.

It blows my mind.

Moving through pre-modern history, we see ‘lost and found’ posters, and sales messages and promotions, appearing on papyrus in ancient Egypt and Greece, and oral (word of mouth) advertising is recorded happening throughout the world.

The first example of what we would consider ‘traditional’ printed advertising can be found in China, during the Song dynasty- A copper printing plate with a rabbit logo and the words ‘Jinan Liu’s Fine Needle Shop” and “We buy high quality steel rods and make fine quality needles, to be ready for use at home in no time” written above and below was unearthed.

Jinan Liu- the great great great grandfather of modern marketing!

Moving through history and up to the invention of the printing press- a big deal for marketing, the 1400s equivalent of the internet- we see images representing businesses cropping up everywhere. This was perfect at the time for a European populace who relied on lots of services and trade (blacksmiths, tailors, pubs etc.) but were, by and large, entirely illiterate.

Marketing in this period very much shadows the development of culture and history across the world, and you can see as society develops a more competitive, capitalistic approach to trade, and groups of people start forming together to create modern social constructs that we would nowadays recognise as hamlets, villages, and even townships, marketing becomes more involved and sophisticated.

As we go into the later stages of pre-modern history we see things like sign boards appearing (like the ones you’d see hanging outside of a pub) and the first major jump into outbound marketing in the form of a town crier.

For a mostly illiterate populus, town criers were initially a way to get news and information about vital political developments and general town goings-on. This was a person (typically a man) standing in the town square or another socially communal area ringing a bell to get attention and then shouting information for all to hear.

This developed into marketing when business owners in the town would engage the town crier firstly as an auctioneer- he held attention and was loud, perfect for auctioning off goods and items- and then as a vehicle for advertisement for business.

Vendors would give the town crier money or other considerations in exchange for telling people about their goods and services, in between news items. Much like adverts between news broadcasts on the television, these announcements spoke to people when their attention was already captured by the news service.

This is an example of early interruptive advertising, marketing that gets in the way of what people are trying to actually achieve. Instead of getting news, townsfolk were now getting told about deals and offers for local businesses… this trend held for a looooooooooong time after that, and was the bread and butter of marketing for decades to come.

person using a black typewriter

The Invention of the Gutenberg Press, and What it Meant For Marketers

The Gutenberg Press was a machine that allowed for books and written materials to be produced relatively en-masse. Instead of relying on things being handwritten, the printing press could churn out up to 3600 pages. This paved the way for more intensive marketing efforts to be made, and by the mid 1500s we see the advent of printed media- newspapers, magazines, books… they exploded onto the scene.

Literacy rates skyrocket during this period, and newspapers quickly adopted paid advertising slots to offset print costs and distribution expenses. Lots of the early newspapers carried commercial adverts for ‘quackery’- lotions and potions and quack medicine that promised everything from everlasting life to… medicines designed to enhance bedroom performance.

This is why it’s important to know your marketing history- spam emails about viagra pills have existed in some form or another for over 500 years, there’s nothing left to invent- even in the digital age!

In 1786, something very interesting and important happened, something that would shape the canvas of marketing forevermore. William Taylor, of London, England, bought a huge amount of space in major newspapers for advertising, and began selling them for profit. The first ever marketing agency was alive and well- 90 years before the telephone was even invented!

Because of the efficiency of this form of printing, around this time, some legislation is introduced to prevent this immensely disruptive and occasionally misleading form of advertising.

In 1839, posters were banned from being put up on properties in London, because the city had become a canvas of logos, outlandish claims, and pricing papers. Taxation on advertising (advertising duty) was introduced in the UK. This was an advertising boom, where invasive advertising developed beyond the town crier and flooded into the streets- thus becoming both disruptive and unavoidable.

Historically, this is a theme.

A new thing comes along- cave wall paintings, town criers, print media, radio, mail marketing, television, the internet, email marketing, social media marketing- and there is a sudden boom in that sort of advertising and content creation.

Knowing your history, and understanding these booms, allows you to capitalise on them, and get ahead of the competition.

The next major boom comes with the advent of radio marketing. All of a sudden, in the early 1900s, marketers and business owners have a way of reaching into people’s homes and connecting with them directly.

Coupled with the World Wars and a genuine hunger for information and news, radio became a great new way to reach potential customers.

Throughout the World Wars, we also see a growth in more stylistic advertising. This wasn’t just ‘this is my product, isn’t it great?’ advertising, where people would buy based on the merits of the offering. This becomes more sophisticated, and develops into ‘I’m a patriot, are you? If so, buy…’.

It plays on the core emotion and psychology of the potential customer, signifying a huge step forward in marketing.

old fashioned tv on a tv stand
In 1941, we see the advent of TV marketing (in the US, Europe was a little slower on the uptake of Television). The first television advert was aired during a Brooklyn Dodgers game, featuring 10 seconds espousing the value of a Bulova watch and reaching 4000 people in the New York area.

Marketing was officially modernised… but still, entirely focussed on interruptive marketing.

Marketeers had yet to find a way to speak to people in a natural way, working and communicating with them instead of just appearing in front of them without any real targeting.

This interruptive trend became even more pronounced in the 1970s, when telephone marketing became a viable way to sell products. Phone calls selling all sorts just about replaced the door to door salesman, and person to person selling becomes the go to.

Phone and television marketing begins to take over, with many physical print marketers feeling the pinch.

Many print agencies shut down, including the previously successful Life magazine- citing competition from television and phone marketing as the reason.

After this point, we see marketing set for a few years.

There is a period of stagnation as outbound marketing and television advertising firmly establish themselves as the apex predator of the marketing ecosystem.

We wouldn’t move away from the interruptive trend until…

Modern Marketing

The computer.

I could just leave this section of the blog at that, and most people would understand.

The Mackintosh (Apple to me and you) personal computer advert, which aired during the SuperBowl and reached nearly half of all Americans, put personal computers into homes across America- and then the world.

Personal computers made print media far more convenient and cost effective, and thus rebalanced the equilibrium between print and television advertising. All of this was great for marketing, as it created more opportunities to reach more people, more quickly.

However, it allowed computers to sneak in through the back door.

Computers were vital to create advertising materials, and so they had to be everywhere .

If only there was a way to leverage that technology… to get computers to talk to one another, and reach every computer with any and all information in a fast, convenient, and unignorable way.

Some sort of… information superhighway?

The internet was as powerful as it was inevitable.

At the time of writing, businesses can now focus their marketing efforts in an entirely digital way and still flourish. The internet facilitated social media marketing, targeted ads, spam emails and accelerated marketing into the sophisticated, complex beast we see today.

The Internet forced the first major step away from invasive, interruptive marketing. Marketers had a sure fire way to segment their audience.

In the early 2000s, SEO becomes a thing. A very important and valuable thing, and probably the most valuable tool in any marketer’s toolkit. SEO allows you to reach audiences in a non-disruptive way. Now that we’re past the days of spammy posts and keyword stuffing, SEO content marketing is now invaluable to any business.

And that brings us pretty much up to date…

I could go on about SEO content marketing for another 3000 words, but I’m assuming anyone reading this will have at least a basic understanding of modern marketing. If you don’t, be sure to read more of our posts and you’ll find a load of good information on marketing!

If you’re still struggling with the concepts, or simply don’t have the time to devote to marketing, get in touch with Canny and see what we can do for you and your business.

And with the modern state of marketing boxed away, we now move onto the speculative, the unknowable…

white robot

The Future

Marketers are currently discussing the potential of NFTs and TikTok for B2B marketing purposes, or at least considering it.

TikTok still falls under social media marketing, and so isn’t likely to be as disruptive or influential as some people think (or so I think- happy to be proved wrong and eat some humble pie on that one further down the line!).

NFTs are still a niche case, with not enough data to say yes or no to them being the next big thing, but I can’t see that explode in the same way as the internet or print media did.

I think, and again this is purely speculation at this point, VR will probably be the next thing that really explodes in a major way for marketing.

I’m not sure at this point what that will look like, and I think it has some fairly obvious issues in that at first it will be necessarily interruptive, and restricted to B2C functionality in the short term, but as far as exciting technologies go, I think virtual reality, augmented reality, and extended reality will be the next step in the illustrious history of marketing.

And that’s it!

While we haven’t branched into the future and don’t offer VR advertising yet, why not get in touch with Canny and see what marketing solutions we can offer you to improve your business and profitability.

After all, we understand our history, and have learned from 10,000 years of marketers trying stuff out to see what works best!

If you fancy having a go at building out a marketing team using some of the best marketers from across history, why not check out our dream team marketing post!